Exploring Philadelphia’s Rich History

This week in North Philly Notes, Jim Murphy, author of Real Philly History, Real Fast, explains the stories from the city’s past that intrigued him enough to write a book about them.

History is for everyone. Real Philly History, Real Fast, provides more than 50 short chapters that provide a complete story of figures, places, and events in Philadelphia history in mere minutes.

The book answers intriguing and important questions you may never have thought about. Like why did Charles Willson Peale add the second “L” to his middle name? Who stole the first book from the Library Company of Philadelphia? And where was its most famous painting found?

Or what little-known Revolutionary War hero took the fight right to Britain’s front door, terrifying its citizens and driving the British Empire’s insurance costs through the roof? How did the Acadians come to live in Philly and where did they stay? And what special skill saved black businessman James Forten (not his real name) from a life of West Indian servitude?

But wait there’s more! Real Philly History, Real Fast, answers these probing questions: What Philadelphian has over 40 towns named for him? What statue may be the second most photographed in Philly (behind Rocky, of course)? And where did the Liberty Bell receive its last crack?

Real Philly History, Real Fast will make the city feel familiar to you no matter how long you’ve lived here because it presents its history in a new light.

As an amateur general historian and certified member of the Association of Philadelphia Tour Guides—as well as a constant walker and a lover of Philadelphia—I dig for information in my determination to find great stories wherever I can. I look at each story like a detective with a mystery to solve. I originally spent an average of 25-35 hours on each story in this book, researching facts, checking multiple sources, and then cutting each story down to their very essence.

Of course, no one book can cover all of Philadelphia history. There are more than 300 blue-and-gold Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission signs in Philadelphia alone, not even including the suburban counties. And while this book is geared toward center city, you will find stories on Fort Mifflin, the Lazaretto, Cliveden in Germantown and Taller Puertorriqueño in Fairhill.

One story of particular interest to me was the Mason-Dixon survey. I learned in researching the story that some nationally syndicated publications describe the vista of the Mason-Dixon line as being 3-feet wide. That’s absolutely wrong. The team, which numbered as many as 115 people, cut a vista 24-30 feet wide through dense Pennsylvania forests. Also interesting to me: that survey began on South Street in Philadelphia, a fact many Philadelphians don’t know.

Philadelphia had two superstars who jump-started this city: Penn and Ben. Or William Penn and Ben Franklin. And although they missed meeting each other by about 20 years, they helped make this the fastest growing city in the country. In 1770, Philly passed New York and Boston to become the largest, most important city in the Colonies. That growth was due to William Penn’s unique grid system, his five public squares, his well-regulated market and his ability to attract people here to his City of Brotherly Love. Penn’s attitude toward the Lenni Lenape, his system of government and his religious tolerance were all unique.

These are just a few of the tidbits you will discover in the book, which meant to whet your appetite for more Philadelphia history. As I said, there are countless stories to be told…

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